It took nearly 10 yeas of legal battles and three branches of government to clear Jose Godinez-Samperio's path to practice law.
Godinez-Samperio, who on Nov. 20 will become the first undocumented immigrant admitted to the Florida Bar, entertained a crowd of 100 people at Eckerd College Tuesday night with the story of his journey.
Born in Mexico, the former Tampa resident now living in Largo, came to the United States when he was 9 years old with his parents, who overstayed their tourist visas. He said he doesn't recall the exact day his visa expired.
"I was probably watching Barney that day," he told a laughing crowd, gathered as part of the school's annual Presidential Events Series, this year focused on issues of immigration, identity and globalization.
So began the slow realization of his illegal status in the United States and the obstacles he'd be forced to overcome. There was the middle school trip to Europe he had to skip because he couldn't legally leave the country and the traditionally momentous 16th birthday that for Godinez-Samperio came and went without a celebratory driver's license.
"In that moment I really began to understand that this wasn't going to be an easy life," he said.
He wanted to attend college and had the grades to do it, graduating as valedictorian from Armwood High in Tampa. But without a Social Security number and the ability to apply for students loans, he worried he wouldn't be able to afford it.
He was admitted to New College of Florida, one of the only schools that accepted him, and was offered a full-ride despite his unlawful immigration status. Next he applied to law school at Florida State University, where he took a gamble and wrote about his struggles as an undocumented immigrant in his admission essay. The school accepted him, too, and a mix of administrators and government figures helped find him scholarships and put a roof over his head.
"At this moment, I thought, 'wow,' " he said. "If I got this far, why not try for the bar exam, right? Why not?
"I know it sounds crazy, but I felt so privileged to be able to sit there and take it," Godinez-Samperio said.
When he passed, the bar told him: "This is the first time we have had anybody with unlawful immigration status pass the bar exam, and we don't know what to do with you," he said.
The Bar asked the state Supreme Court to weigh in, and it denied him entry to the state bar, citing a federal law barring public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
It took an act of the Florida Legislature to clear the way for Godinez-Samperio, and on July 2 of this year he received the letter he'd been waiting for.
After his speech, Godinez-Samperio fielded questions from the audience about his thoughts on the importance of immigration reform.
Seminole City Council member Patricia Plantamura attended the event because she said she wanted to "understand compassionately a Floridian's perspective on the issue of immigration.
"This is Florida changing," she said. "This is America changing."